Me, Mike and Manny circa 1966

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Remembering Tacloban

For the lives lost to Yolanda.  For the families who are grieving.  For our kababayn back home who are always keeping an eye out for baha, for typhoon and strong wind.  For the rain that washes everything away.

Lola Cristeta Alcober at the site of her garrison just outside of Tacloban.
Tonight I am launching Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery at the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC.  I look forward to this night not for Angel's sake, but for the company of being with other Filipinos and Filipino Americans. Maybe we can say a silent prayer together.  Maybe light a candle.  Maybe at the reception we'll organize disaster relief.        
          In 2002, Lola Cristeta Alcober, a surviving Filipina Comfort Women of WII, took me to Tacloban. All my that year, all she wanted me to do was bring her home.  I told her, if you get yourself a polkadot bikini, we’ll go swimming off the shores.  "Sige," she said.  "Swimming na tayo."

Excerpt from “Ocean of Umiyak”

Lola Cristeta, LILA Pilipina organizer Sol Rapisura, and I take a little plane from Manila on the island of Luzon to the Visayan island of Leyte.  The plane is small and feels every single current, moves on the shift of a cloud and the breath of our pilot.  Lola Cristeta smiles, looking out the window from behind a pair of movie star sunglasses.  She points like she can see her house, floating in a sea of trees, set in the middle of an island in the vast Pacific Ocean.  She is going to make us taste the local cuisine and drink tuba, a local moonshine of distilled coconut juice. 
When the plane lands, she is the first one standing, wiggling her hips down the aisle of the narrow plane, stepping onto the tarmac.
If this were Manila, she would wait for us, but in Tacloban she leads the way down streets like the mayor, calling out to passersby and waving.   Dirt roads, wide and lazy, lead to a smattering of houses, sari sari stores and vegetable stands.  We walk past a church, maybe a school.  Occasionally, a motor trike zooms past us and kicks up the dust.   The trees tower over us.  Green and thick, they shade us, tell us how old they and this town are. 
Lola Cristeta and me standing near the site of her former home.
We are finding our way to the house where she grew up.  We visit distant relations.  “I’m back,” she tells them in Visayan, “I brought my friends.”  Her words float by me like people on the street.  Some of them I recognize. Tagalog words.  Sometimes English.  Some are variations of words from her testimony and others are foreign and awkward to my ear.  We stop at a house and Lola raps on a screen.  A woman swings a door open.  Lola Cristeta greets her, her hands gesturing north and south and her smile widening with each word.   The woman listens and then nods.  She speaks back quickly and calls a name or two, says that one married; that one moved away.  Somebody died.  And after awhile, Lola Cristeta points to the side of a house, at a porch made of bamboo with plastic chairs that line the walls. 
“We go that way,” she tells us.
Her voice rises above the cock’s crow.  She pushes her shades up her flat nose; her gold rings and bracelets catch a hit from the sun.   I trail behind her, the camera lens zooms out and shooting the sleepy barrio.  I focus on her gait, how quick and certain, how fast. 
As we move towards the location of her house, the nipa huts and small structures grow scarce and the grasses spike past her shoulders, and the trees shoot into the blue sky, limbs bowing towards us like angel wings. 
I imagine this was the walk she and her brother Marianito took on the way home from the market that day -- that these old paths existed in some form and the trees not so tall and leafy.  But the grasses must have been this high, I think, the shrubbery this fat.  The crickets singing and leaping to the skies just like this.  The silence of the countryside and the heat of the sun, felt old and familiar to the skin.  It must have been like this, I think, watching her. 
We walk past a front porch and as we turn the corner a little woman with white hair and a long walking stick comes out, calling to us in Waray.   She is ninety-years old.  The two old women have never met, but they stop and talk to each other like long-time neighbors trading tsimis, but its not gossip.  They literally exchange war stories.
The old woman is not surprised by Lola Cristeta’s experience.  She knows.  It was what happened back then, but no one ever talked about it.  She wishes us well and watches us walk away, blessing us as we go. 

Here is the friend Lola Cristeta ran into on the dirt path.
On the path, we run into another woman, small like Lola Cristeta, but dark with a long low ponytail.  Lola Cristeta grabs the lady’s arm, starts talking at her.  The woman doesn’t recognize her at first but then there is a flurry of arms going up and hands waving at me.  They were girlhood friends, I am told.  They knew each other when the war broke out. 
And slowly, I begin to figure out that every person Lola Cristeta meets, whether it is someone from her past or a stranger she has stopped for directions, every person is hearing her testimony.
“I never knew,” says her friend.  “I never heard,” she tells me. 
“And how do you feel now that you know,” I ask. 
“I want to cry,” she tells me in Visayan, “I am sad.”
More than fifty years of silence and suddenly, we float down upon the rural roads leading out of Tacloban and she calls out her truth like a herald from God.

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